Fat is an essential tool in the healthy cook's kitchen. It elevates food like no other medium can, but it also adds more calories than any other nutrient. With 9 calories per gram, fat is twice as dense as carbs and protein, but that comes with a hefty benefit: it also takes longer to digest and leaves you full longer.
In recent days, the subject of saturated fats and the healthfulness of butter has been trending among both the media and the health industry. Some have declared that butter is back. Others, namely healthy eating advocates, have cautioned these studies aren't definitive, and they're certainly not reason to start piling on the pats at the plate. Butter, after all, isn't exactly something that you can consume on its own.
It's true that saturated fat can drive up total cholesterol, especially the harmful LDL that can block arteries in the heart and body. But there's evidence that it also increases the "good" HDL cholesterol. It's also true that replacing saturated fats like those found in butter with unsaturated fats reduces your risk for cardiovascular diseases and death.
"Whether saturated fat is bad depends on the comparison," explains Walter Willett, MD, chair of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. (His comments originally appeared in our November 2015 "The Healthy Cook's Guide to Fat" feature.) "Unfortunately, to lower saturated fat [in the American diet], refined starches and sugar are used as replacement calories and could actually be harmful for some people."
Our stance: Saturated fat, if kept within the USDA's guidelines of less than 10% of total calories from sat fat per day (20g based on a 2,000-calorie diet), is OK.
Butter is arguably one of life's most indulgent guilty pleasures. It is one of the most concentrated sources of saturated fat, at 7.3g per tablespoon (30% of the USDA's daily recommendation). But the beauty of butter is that it doesn't take much to make a big impact—a few tablespoons at most to finish an entire pan of meat and veggies to serve four people. What butter does so beautifully is make healthy food such as whole grains, greens, lean protein, and fish taste better. And we believe it's worth splurging on premium, European-style butters such as Kerrygold and Plugrá. These butters have a higher butterfat percentage (and lower water content), so less is needed to create that luscious sauce—stretching that extra dollar you paid for it, too.
To demonstrate, we use this mouthwatering fat to enhance and elevate ultralean chicken breasts in our Chicken and Carrots with Lemon Butter Sauce recipe. Adding a dab of butter near the end of cooking lends a creamy, satin-smooth finish that no other fat can emulate. The fat emulsifies and slightly thickens the sauce enough to coat the chicken beautifully. This technique works equally well on lean fish.
The Takeaway: Find your balance with butter. Each tablespoon is packed with inimitable flavor and mouthfeel. And while it may not be the villain we once thought, it is a highly concentrated source of sat fat, with more than 7g per tablespoon. Use it sparingly but smartly in dishes where no other fat will do—like the delicate pan sauce at right.